For a long time, the term climate change meant nothing more to Americans than reaching for a remote control to change the setting on their air-conditioners. No one gave any thought to CO2 emissions -- which goes a long way towards explaining why coal and natural gas supplied -- and continue to supply -- the lion's share of the 4.5 trillion kilowatt hours of electricity America consumes each year.
But not all of it. Nuclear power also has a role to play, though it has long been on the periphery. It all started in the Idaho National Laboratory west of the Rocky Mountains, when a light bulb was powered for the first time by nuclear energy in December 1951. The nearby desert town of Arco had the privilege of being the world's first municipality to use electricity from a nuclear power plant. Today the light bulb and the EBR-I reactor, which powered the light bulb and the town, are both tourist attractions -- but they are not especially popular ones.
Indeed, for a long time, the 104 nuclear power plants still remaining in the United States seemed to be on their way out. Many of them will soon hit their 40th birthday when, according to US law, operating licenses automatically expire. But more than half of the plants have already received new licenses for two more decades of operation. A nuclear power plant like the Calvert Cliffs plant in Maryland, which went online in 1974, can now remain in operation until 2034 instead of 2014.
The United States derives only about one-fifth of its electricity from nuclear power plants, but if the energy companies have their way, this share will soon increase dramatically. About 30 new reactors are planned, with four of them already in the approval process. For some, this is not enough. Samuel Bodman, secretary of energy in the administration of President George W. Bush, wants to see the country build "130 or 230 additional units," he says. And Republican presidential candidate John McCain recently said that he supported building 100 new reactors. His Democratic rival, Barack Obama, is likewise not fundamentally opposed to an expansion of nuclear power.
The US nuclear boom really got going in 2005, when Bush signed a new energy bill granting generous loan guarantees and tax allowances to companies applying for approval of new reactors. The list of companies rushing to embrace the deal is long: General Electric (GE) has entered into a nuclear partnership with Japanese power plant maker Hitachi; America's second-largest producer of electricity from nuclear energy, NRG, has joined forces with Toshiba to build two new reactors in Texas; and French nuclear power giant Electricité de France has entered into a joint venture with Constellation Energy, America's third-largest nuclear power producer. There are a number of other projects still in the planning stage.
But the nuclear boom is also leading to many problems. For instance, the federal agency that regulates the industry, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), lacks the necessary personnel to quickly and efficiently handle the complex approval process. In the 1960s and 1970s, energy companies were routinely required to tear down steel and concrete structures before they were completed, because safety regulations were changing so quickly. To avoid the same problem today, regulators and energy companies plan to agree on two or three standard reactor models, which would mean that new nuclear power plants would essentially be constructed as prefabricated units.
Gore versus Schwarzenegger
The industry that supplies parts for nuclear reactors is also a potential source of bottlenecks. It can only supply the necessary parts to build three to four new reactors a year. And for some especially important cast metal components, there is only one supplier worldwide, Japan Steel Works. The Japanese are the only ones capable of casting the enormous steel elements used in the reactor core in one piece and with the necessary precision, so that power plant producers are now forced to stand in line. Those that expect to have their reactors up and running by 2015 must have already ordered critical parts today.
If there is anyone who understands and promotes his industry's makeover from villain to potential saviour, it is David Crane. The CEO of the country's second-largest energy company, NRG, Crane has neither a reception area nor a receptionist. In fact, he shares a large, open office area in Princeton, New Jersey with his traders.
To reduce employee stress, NRG headquarters includes a basketball court next to the main trading room, and jeans and T-shirts are not out of place among the company's roughly 200 young employees. The entire operation looks more like the offices of search engine giant Google than some run-of-the-mill power company. Nevertheless, NRG, one of the 10 largest emitters of CO2 in the United States, is not exactly popular with the newly environmentally conscious American public.
Crane knows that he has to take action. But how? There are currently two options in America, he says. One is the Al Gore model and the other is the Schwarzenegger approach. Gore stands for saving and doing without. Crane doubts that Americans will be willing get rid of their air-conditioning and hang up their laundry outside again. He believes that the Schwarzenegger philosophy will prevail. It goes something like this: "I want to drive my Hummer and fly my Gulfstream 4, I just don't want them to produce any greenhouse gas."
Nuclear Power for Cars
To confront these challenges head-on, NRG last September became the first company in the industry to submit an application for a new nuclear power plant in the US. If everything goes according to plan, the reactor, which would be built in Texas, could go online in 2015, making it America's first new nuclear power plant in decades.
Almost 30 years have passed since the accident at the Three Mile Island reactor near Harrisburg shocked
America. But the public's memory of the accident has gradually faded, replaced by fears of the consequences of global warming as the Bush era comes to an end. It is these fears that are helping the nuclear lobby in its campaign to build new, CO2 emissions-free reactors.
"Global warming was the first breakthrough for us," says Crane. The second one, he adds, is beginning to emerge now -- at gas stations. "Gas prices are at $4.30 per gallon, and there are all these people driving 80 miles a day to work and back at just 14 miles to the gallon," he says. "That is breaking the back of the American commuter."
For Crane, the solution to almost all of America's energy problems lies in a massive expansion of nuclear power and Americans switching to electric cars. According to his vision, the country could reach that point sometime between 2020 and 2030. By then, says Crane, there would be a sufficient number of new nuclear power plants in operation, and the auto industry would have had enough time to develop electronic engine technologies.
He has even calculated the cost of a charge of electricity from nuclear sources that would be used to power a car. The amount of electricity corresponding to one gallon of gas, says Crane, would cost about one-fourth of the current price of that same gallon of gas, or roughly between 80¢ and $1 (52 to 65 euro cents). "Not only do we solve our own carbon emission problem, but we can then solve the problem of the transport industry and industry in general," says Crane. "We can just electrify all these things."